LINCOLN — It was on Blaise Gunnerson’s official visit when Nebraska coaches started rattling off names of former Husker outside linebackers who had Gunnerson’s build and skill set.
One of them was an Academic All-American and NU’s only winner of the Butkus Award.
“His name was definitely one that came up,” said Gunnerson, who announced his commitment to Nebraska on Tuesday over his other finalist, Iowa State.
It’s a high bar even mentioning Alberts — the player who most personified the Huskers’ switch from a 5-2 defense to an attacking system that won three national titles in the 1990s. But in the simplest biographical ways, it lines up.
Gunnerson’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame is similar to Alberts’. Both are from Iowa. And what Nebraska really needs the Carroll Kuemper star to do — be an elite pass rusher, a sheer headache for opposing quarterbacks — is what Alberts did best of all.
That’s part of why Nebraska prioritized Gunnerson so much over the last six months, first catching up to and then surpassing Iowa State on his list. Because Gunnerson missed his junior season with a torn hip labrum — and because he was a 195-pound “stick running around the field” as a sophomore — the attention around the consensus three-star prospect wasn’t as hot as it could have been.
Nebraska, though, pursued Gunnerson like a prize. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander — himself an Iowa native — introduced Gunnerson to his family. Chinander and Frost both texted Gunnerson often after he took his June 14 Nebraska visit, and especially after the June 21 trek to Iowa State. After leaning toward NU for several weeks, Gunnerson said, the “high” of the ISU visit really had him thinking hard about the Cyclones. He grew up a fan of Iowa State.
“I leaned Iowa State for a day or two,” Gunnerson said. “Then I kind of got back to myself and knew Nebraska was the place for me. If I go to Nebraska, they’re going to develop me to be the best version of myself on and off the field. Their academics really impressed me, their strength and conditioning really impressed me, and the coaching staff was the most important thing. Scott Frost has been completely honest with me.”
Gunnerson said he had to be honest with himself, too, that he couldn’t pick Iowa State just because he was a fan of the program. There was some expectation in Carroll, he said, that he’d be a Cyclone.
“The whole entire town is Iowa State fans, so it’s certainly not going to be a popular decision, but I’ll tell them this is the best choice for me,” Gunnerson said. “True friends and true family members are going to love that I made this decision, because it’s going to make me happy.”
It’ll make the Husker coaching staff happy, too. Gunnerson, along with Chamberlain (S.D.) defensive lineman Nash Hutmacher and Lawrence (Kan.) Free State offensive tackle Turner Corcoran, were clearly among NU’s top targets in the 500-mile radius. If Hutmacher and Corcoran enjoyed spectacular, breakout junior years on the field, Gunnerson experienced one off of it. Missing football because of a hip injury was hard, he said, but he gained “50 to 55 pounds” of muscle anyway.
“What got me through it was going to the weight room and doing arm day for eight months straight,” Gunnerson said. “It’s kind of fun doing arms. That got my athletic edge off. I went two times a day, attacked any part that I could that my physical therapist would let me.”
Gunnerson said his speed training is good, his vertical jump remains strong and he’ll be a different, bigger, faster player as a senior.
He becomes the seventh commit in Nebraska’s 2020 class and the fifth inside the 500-mile radius, which has a particularly strong crop of talent this year. Gunnerson is the fourth commit in eight days, as well. He decided Sunday night and called Frost to deliver the news.
His future head coach was on a boat in Montana. The reception was spotty, but Frost joked that every time he goes to Montana a player commits. In this case, a very coveted one.
“They think I can be a good leader on the football team,” Gunnerson said.